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Adviser behind Civil Partnerships calls for them to be extended to straight couples

Lord Lester of Herne Hill February 22, 2017
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Lord Lester of Herne Hill was instrumental in Civil Partnerships back in 2004, now he wants it extended to opposite sex couple.

In 2002 my Civil Partnership Bill sought to enable unmarried couples (opposite-sex and same-sex) to enter into civil partnerships. It led to a new law, a step towards equality for LGBT people. A move which led to the eventual passing of the Equal Marriage Act thanks to the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government.

The Civil Partnership Act 2004 that my original Bill prompted enabled same-sex partners to obtain legal recognition of their relationship outside marriage. But it bars opposite-sex couples from doing so. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, gives same-sex couples but not opposite-sex couples the alternative option of entering into marriage, despite attempts by Liberal Democrat to amend the Bill.

The result has been a situation that is again discriminatory based on sexual orientation. A gay or lesbian couple may choose whether to be civil partners or to marry. A heterosexual couple has no such choice. Either they marry or their relationship is not legally recognized and they and their children are vulnerable if one of them dies or the relationship breaks down. This is not equality.

This week this has been brought the fore. A new, and hopefully productive, discussion has begun around the current law. Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan are such a young couple. In a committed long-term relationship. They have deep-rooted and genuine objections to marriage which they consider to be patriarchal in nature. Civil partnership would reflect their values and recognise the equal nature of their relationship. It would also give their child a stable environment in which to grow up. They also desire the financial benefits of marriage and civil partnership, such as inheritance rights and relief from inheritance tax on death.

The fact that they, and some three million other unmarried opposite-sex couples, are denied a choice that would be theirs if they were of the same sex, is a detriment that requires an objective justification. This week the Court of Appeal unanimously ruled that this discrimination “will ultimately be unsustainable”. But two members of the Court of Appeal accepted the government’s plea to be given time to “wait and evaluate” the effect on civil partnerships of having given same-sex couples the option to marry.

I hope that the Supreme Court will hear the appeal speedily and declare the present situation to be incompatible with the rights protected by the European Convention and the Human Rights Act. It is surely no answer to an otherwise justified claim of discrimination that the government needs time to wait and evaluate the extent to which a remedy for another type of discrimination is needed.

Suppose there was a law forbidding race discrimination but none forbidding sex discrimination. It would be no answer to the claim that the government was waiting to see how the race discrimination law was working. What matters is equal justice for the victims of both types of discrimination.

As for the possibility, hinted at by the Conservative government, that they might decide to abolish civil partnerships rather than to extend them to opposite-sex couples, to do that be to destroy the rights of the many thousands of existing civil partners – there and require same-sex couples to marry in violation of their sincere philosophical convictions.

This is an injustice that has existed for years, inequality created from a desire for a better system. We must put things right and create the true equality that was at the core of the legal and political battles for equal marriage in the first place.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC is a Liberal Democrat peer and equality & human rights lawyer.

Related topics: Blair, Civil partnerships, Labour, lib den, marriage

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